A Chinese foreign national attending Virginia Tech was the subject of a weeks-long investigation into strange purchases. However, that investigation may have prevented Virginia Tech from being the site of a second school shooting like the one that occurred in 2007.
Yunsong Zhao, a student at Virginia Tech, has been arrested as a result of that investigation, for the crime of illegally possessing an assault firearm without U.S. citizenship.
Zhao was caught because he tried to purchase 5,000 rounds of ammunition for his illegally-owned rifle. He also bought a used patrol car at a police auction and was researching body armor.
Foreign nationals in the U.S. face different firearm ownership laws than actual citizens face. They ARE allowed to rent firearms in many states, and in some states, they can even borrow a firearm from a friend, so long as the friend is at the range with them. Some states even allow them to own a firearm.
Virginia code does not allow individuals in the country on a student visa to own an ‘assault firearm,’ a term which, in Virginia, is defined as any firearm that can be equipped with a silencer, or any firearm equipped with a folding stock. It also covers any firearm that, at time of arrest, is equipped with a magazine that carries 20 rounds or more.
The Bushmaster XM-15, depending on the particular variant and how it is customized, can meet all three of those criteria. In most states, the Bushmaster XM-15 and its variants, like most AR-15 rifles, are shipped with a 30-round magazine, meaning most AR-15s on the market meet at least one criteria.
A purchase of 5,000 rounds of .223 Remington ammunition (the caliber Zhao’s Bushmaster XM-15 utilized) is not a small purchase, nor is it a cheap one.
The cheaper bulk ammunition can be had for around $1,200. More expensive ammunition, such as competition or ‘match’ grade ammunition, can be far more expensive, and some can even approach prices of a dollar per round.
Such a large purchase of ammunition is not common for the average firearm enthusiast, and if that ‘enthusiast’ is a foreign national, it can be even more suspicious.
School police at Virginia Tech said that they became aware of Zhao after he bought a PMAG 30-round magazine on January 22, and an AR-15 on January 25.
When Zhao checked out his AR-15 from a shared student gun locker at the Public Safety Building on Virginia Tech’s campus, Virginia Tech police asked Blacksburg law enforcement to follow Zhao.
According to a detective, Zhao fired a .223 rifle with a 30-round magazine.
Investigators found out that Zhao had purchased a police interceptor-style car, and was looking into body armor and how to purchase it. He also fitted the interceptor-style car with ‘special bumpers’ such as those that actual police vehicles use to help improve their odds in collisions.
Virginia Tech police arrested Zhao after finding out that he had ‘multiple rifles’ that he was ‘changing’ into ‘assault rifles’ while they were in his possession. In Zhao’s defense, putting a thirty-round standard USGI magazine into an AR-15 is all it takes to change the rifle into an ‘assault rifle’ in the state of Virginia, but he should still have been aware of the laws.
Due to his arrest and the crime he allegedly committed, Zhao was also removed from his status as a student at Virginia Tech.
It is not likely that he will be allowed to return to the school, no matter what happens in his court case.
When informed about the arrest of their classmate, students were surprised. Most described Zhao as a ‘normal’ guy who was just quiet.
Others expressed fear that ‘someone would try that,’ though it is not clear at this point precisely what ‘that’ actually means.
School officials at Virginia Tech stated that they were not worried that Zhao represented a danger, and was merely acting out of an abundance of caution.
The direct quote from the school is that “at no time … did police believe there was any threat to our community, nor is there one now.”
Nevertheless, the actions of the former-Virginia Tech student Zhao are somewhat questionable.
According to Virginia law, it appears that Zhao could have legally bought an AR-15 rifle of some sort. He would have simply had to feed it with 20-round magazines to keep it from becoming an assault rifle.’
Zhao has no history of violence, and his criminal record contains only a single pending charge for reckless driving by speeding, a charge which usually means a driver was speeding by more than 20 miles an hour.
Whatever Zhao was planning to do with his rifle collection, his 5,000 rounds of ammunition, his police-interceptor, and the body armor he seemed so interested in may have been entirely innocent. However, he did still break the laws of the state of Virginia.
It is possible that an abundance of caution prevented a school shooting in this case. Either way, it caught someone in the commission of a crime.